Grandparents who provide some level of care for their grandchildren tend to be less lonely than those who don’t take on that role, according to a German study published Tuesday in the online journal BMJ Open.
They also tend to have larger social networks, the study found.
“Assisting their families to balance work and family by providing supplementary grandchild care may boost grandparents’ self-esteem, and may also facilitate ongoing positive relationships with their children and grandchildren,” the study’s authors write. “Moreover, caring for grandchildren may also expand the social circle of grandparents and allow for further opportunities to establish relationships with other parents or grandparents.”
With increases in life expectancy and with working mothers now an integral part of the workplace, many parents are turning to their parents to help provide child care, particularly when other forms of child care are either nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.
The health implications — both psychological and physical — of this grandparent-provided child care have become a growing topic of research. Most previous studies have focused, however, on grandparents who are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, not on grandparents who help out when gaps in child care arise. That latter situation is, of course, much more common.
In the United States, about 50 percent of grandparents provide some level of supplemental child care to their grandchildren, according to background information in the study.
The authors of the study wanted to see if providing child care might affect grandparents’ feelings of loneliness and social isolation, which are two factors that have been linked to poorer health outcomes. To do this, they analyzed data collected in 2014 from a project that has been surveying German adults aged 40 and older for more than two decades.
The researchers focused on the 2014 data, because that was the year survey respondents were first asked questions designed to measure — on scales of 1 to 4 — their feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Of the 3,849 grandparents who participated in the 2014 survey, 1,115 said they actively cared for one or more grandchildren. Their average age was 66, and slightly more than half of them were women. Most (80 percent) were married and living with their spouse.
The data revealed a strong association between active grandparenting and lower scores on the loneliness scales. It also found that grandparents who spent time caring for their grandchildren tended to have larger social networks.
Those findings held even after adjusting for other factors that can affect feelings of loneliness and social isolation, such as marital status, household income, physical health and depression.
Specifically, the active grandparents who were surveyed had an average loneliness score of 1.7. That compared with an average loneliness score of 1.8 for the grandparents who didn’t take an active role in caring for their grandchildren.
Both types of grandparents had similar average social isolation scores: 1.6. But the grandparents who provided child care for their grandchildren reported being in regular contact with an average of six people, which was one more than the average number of regular contacts reported by those who didn’t provide that care.
Those differences may seem small, but they still suggest, say the study’s authors, that taking care of grandchildren is more likely to have a positive than a negative effect on older people’s feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
A few caveats
This was an observational study, so it can’t prove that caring for grandchildren was the cause of the lower loneliness scores and the larger social networks. As the study’s authors point out, it could be that older people who agree to take care of their grandchildren are individuals who already feel less lonely and isolated.
Furthermore, the study involved only German grandparents. Their experiences may — or may not — be applicable to older people living in other countries, including the United States.
(Interestingly, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that German grandparents are more than twice as likely to provide regular child care for their grandchildren as their American counterparts. The Pew researchers cite two key factors for that difference: Older Germans leave the workforce at earlier ages than do their American counterparts. They also receive greater financial support from their government.)
Another limitation of the current study is that it didn’t gather information on how regularly or intensely the grandparents provided child care. Nor did it look to see how willing the grandparents were to take on that role. Those could be key factors in whether caring for grandchildren has a positive impact on the grandparents’ psychological health.
“As grandparents become obligated to provide more intensive grandchild care, they may feel overburdened by the responsibility and less able to engage in other aspects of their lives,” the researchers write. “Indeed, perception of the nature of grandchild care, specifically whether it is perceived to be a voluntary task or not, has been suggested to be a key proponent of its effect on the health and well-being of grandparents.”
“A mismatch between what grandparents expected to be their obligation and lifestyle during this period of their lives and the reality may cause stress, as well as isolation from their peers,” they add.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the BMJ Open website.